What Is A Dual Diagnosis?

JP Chastain
February 19, 2021

Unfortunately, addiction or substance use disorders are very common in our country. Nearly 21 million Americans struggle with this disease every day. Sadly, out of those 21 million people, only around 10% of them will ever receive treatment for their addiction or substance use disorder. For those who are able to receive treatment, they know that it can sometimes be a bumpy road to recovery. But ultimately, they know that recovery is also very rewarding, especially once they are able to get to a point where they can manage their addiction and achieve meaningful sobriety. This can be especially difficult in the case of a dual diagnosis, where an underlying mental health problem is compounding their own personal struggle with addiction.

What is a dual diagnosis, exactly?

For those who are new to recovery, or for those who have never received professional help for their addiction or substance abuse, they may be unaware of these underlying mental health problems that only serve to amplify their issues with their alcohol or drug addiction. This is commonly referred to as a dual-diagnosis. Many who are new to recovery often have this very same question, what exactly is a dual diagnosis? Put simply, a dual diagnosis is when someone has both a substance use disorder and an underlying mental health disorder at the same time.

The combination of a substance use disorder and mental illness can become a vicious cycle. Mental health issues, especially if a person is unaware that they are suffering from one, can often drive people to self-medicate, which leads them to abuse drugs or alcohol in order to cope with the symptoms of their mental health disorder. The same goes for people who abuse drugs and alcohol. Substance use disorders can lead to mental health issues even if they weren’t there before that person began using drugs or alcohol. If someone has been diagnosed as having a dual diagnosis, usually the best course of action is to treat them at the same time, as they often play into each other.

What is treatment for a dual diagnosis like?

If you have recently been told that you have a dual diagnosis, or if you have a loved one or family member who has recently been diagnosed with a mental health issue as well as a substance abuse disorder, then please know that you are not alone. A dual diagnosis is very common. A 2019 study found that among adults 18 and onlder, approximately 9.5 million people who had any mental illness (AMI), also suffered from a substance use disorder (SUD). Other studies show that nearly half of all people with a mental health issue will also have a substance use disorder as well. This is perhaps in part due to the related risk factors of both mental health issues and substance use disorders, such as things like genetics, stress, environment, and current or past trauma.

How can doctors tell if someone has a dual diagnosis?

Keep in mind that the majority of health professionals will only be able to accurately diagnose a mental health disorder once the person is clean and sober with no drugs left in their system. This is because many drugs are known to cause side effects that can manifest as mental health issues. However, there are many different mental health disorders that can lead a person down the slippery slope of addiction--many end up trying to self-medicate, either when they are unaware they have a problem, or if they simply are not getting the proper care. However, here are a few mental health disorders that are very common to those who also suffer from substance use disorders:

  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): People with ADHD or even ADD (attention-deficit disorder) very commonly also suffer from substance use issues as well. Many turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate but many are also prescribed stimulants like Adderall, which can be very habit forming and addictive.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder: Borderline personality disorder is usually characterized by unstable moods, relationships, and behavior with a wide range of symptoms. Many studies show there is a strong connection between borderline personality disorder and substance use disorder, with as many as ⅔ of people turning to drugs or alcohol at one point in their lives.
  • Bipolar Disorder: As with many other mental health disorders, drugs and alcohol may serve as a reprieve for the emotional highs and lows associated with having bipolar disorder. It is estimated that about half of people with bipolar disorder also struggle with addiction as a way to cope with emotional situations and manic episodes.
  • Depression: Depression is also another common mental health issue that is combined with a substance use disorder, or a dual diagnosis. Unfortunately, it is estimated that around 1 in 10 adults report suffering from depression, leading many people to try and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Just as with any other mental health disorder, this often makes the abuse of substances much worse.
  • Eating Disorders: Eating disorders such as bulimia-nervosa or anorexia-nervosa are also seen with people who have a drug or alcohol addiction. Eating disorders are common with people who suffer from extreme lack of self-esteem or inferiority. Drugs or alcohol are commonly abused to help people deal with these feelings.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is very common with people who suffer from a substance use disorder. According to research, PTSD can cause issues like the brain producing less endorphins, which leads people to using drugs or alcohol in order to feel happy again.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): GAD or other anxiety disorders are also seen in a lot of people who have an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Around 18 percent of the adult population have this disorder. Unfortunately, many turn to substances to help cope with this underlying mental health issue.

Of course, there are many other mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, that if left untreated can cause someone to begin abusing drugs or alcohol.

As mentioned earlier, treatment planning for someone with a dual diagnosis works best when it is specialized to the individual.  While it may seem impossible, we can assure you that it is not. For the best dual diagnosis treatment possible in the Texas area, More Than Rehab can show you the ropes to a successful sobriety while also being able to manage your mental health problems at the same time. There is hope for recovery, and we understand that we could all use a little help, especially in times like these! Call us today. We are open 24/7.


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About The Author: 
JP Chastain
Paul Chastain is a psychology graduate from Columbia University in the City of New York, who has helped countless people with addiction journalism since 2008.

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